I carried something into the screening of "To Rome With Love" that I haven’t had for a while with a Woody Allen movie — high expectations.
Last year’s "Midnight in Paris" was a magical charmer that proved the Wood-man still had it in him, after years of middling films like "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" and "Anything Else." Add the fact that he was moving the action to another romance-drenched European city for this new film, and hopes were high that Allen’s Renaissance period could continue.
Honestly, "Rome" is a clear step down from "Midnight." But it’s a fun, breezy film audiences will enjoy while it lasts and forget soon after. Heaven knows he’s made worse films.
The movie opens with the sight of a traffic cop, gracefully coordinating the streams of traffic at a Rome intersection. Allen serves in much the same role as director, trying to keep several disconnected storylines moving along smoothly.
In the best of these, Alec Baldwin plays a successful architect named John Foy, vacationing in Rome, who decides to visit the neighborhood he lived in 30 years ago as a student. As fate would have it, he meets a young architecture student named Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) entangled with his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) and his girlfriend’s best friend (Ellen Page).
Foy’s cynical observations of the love triangle suggest he knows how it will turn out, that he lived through the same situation when he was a student. In fact, at times it feels like the entire episode isn’t even real, that Foy is remembering all this. Other times, we wonder if the love triangle is real, and Foy is an apparition, a Ghost of Romance Future trying to warn Jack off. Allen keeps the situation pleasingly ambiguous, and the scenes are charged with fine performances by Baldwin, Eisenberg and especially Page as an impulsive actress.
Their storyline is the only one Allen could have conceivably fleshed out into a film, while the other three are enjoyable trifles. Allen appears in one, as a father visiting his daughter’s fiance’s Communist family ("I was never a Communist," Allen quips. "I couldn’t even share a bathroom."). Allen is a former opera company director, and discovers his future son-in-law’s father has a fantastic singing voice — but only in the shower.
Elsewhere, a timid married couple (Alessandra Mastronardi and Alessandro Tiberi) are separated on their first trip to Rome and encounter all sorts of mishaps, some involving a prostitute (Penelope Cruz). In the last storyline, an ordinary man (Roberto Benigni) suddenly finds himself ultra-famous and hounded by paparazzi.
Benigni’s parts are definitely the weakest, essentially a single joke repeated over and over again. But Allen deftly juggles the stories enough that no one part overstays its welcome too much, and the entire enterprise is stuffed with luminous Rome locations, from famous postcard places like the Trevi Fountain to small outdoor cafes.
After watching "Midnight in Paris," I wanted to move to the City of Lights. "To Rome With Love" is like a vacation that’s enjoyable enough, but you have no lingering regrets when you board the plane to head home.